Bridging divisions between science and society

‘We need to move on from communicating with people to engaging with them, which is much deeper,’ says Rhian Salmon.

Dr Rhian Salmon

Whether the issue is vaccination, homeopathy or genetically modified organisms, scientists often find themselves at odds with the public. Scientists are the experts, yet the popular view frequently departs from the established evidence.

It’s this divide between science and society that Dr Rhian Salmon works to bridge in her research in the Faculty of Science at Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Salmon studies how climate and polar science is communicated by the scientific community. We expect definitive answers from climate change scientists, she says, but an important part of their expertise, and the research process, is also the identification of new questions.

The issue of whether people are responsible for climate change continues to cause deep ideological rifts in society. Dr Salmon believes the only way to solve the complex environmental challenges the world faces is for scientists to have genuine conversations with a wide range of people.

“We’re now living in a post-truth world. What a scientist might tell you is just one piece of information you might add to the information you’ve heard from your sister or read on Facebook,” she says.

“We need to move on from communicating with people to engaging with them, which is much deeper. It involves listening to people, having a conversation and working together to come up with solutions.”

Dr Salmon, who is English, began her career as an atmospheric chemist. She was motivated by the thought she might one day be able to work in Antarctica, which she’d wanted to visit since she was 12.

She achieved her goal, spending three summers and a winter as a research scientist at Halley Research Station as part of a seven-year stint working for the British Antarctic Survey. Her work in Antarctica involved commissioning a new ‘clean air’ laboratory and implementing a field campaign to measure trace gases in the troposphere.

Dr Salmon says she enjoyed being in Antarctica even more than she’d expected, particularly because of the simplicity of life on the ice.

“I loved the silence and the lack of multitasking. I had one job to do, one place to live, one group of people to work with and socialise with, and three sets of clothes. When I got back to Britain, I’d stand in a chemist’s shop and see 63 bottles of shampoo, and have no idea how I was expected to choose just one.”

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In a nutshell

My research matters because … It turns science communication on its head: rather than scientists telling people what to think, it gives the power to people to lead the discussion around the information they need to make important decisions about scientific issues such as the environment, their health and the use of new technologies.

One of the inspirations for my research has been … Realising the massive gulf between public perceptions about climate change and scientific understanding.

The best thing about my job is … Working with amazing, creative, passionate students who will make a difference in the world.

My career highlight so far has been … Being given the opportunity to design a major national engagement programme about climate research.

My advice to aspiring researchers is … Only do research into something you really care about.